Wasabi: The Famous Japanese Condiment
Wasabi is one of the most famous condiments in Japanese cuisine. Wasabi is often served with sushi. However, it may surprise many sushi diners that the pungent green paste they have been consuming is not real wasabi but a poor substitute. Most wasabi in supermarkets and restaurants is fake!
What is Wasabi
Wasabi is a spicy condiment from Japan. It is a versatile condiment, often served with sushi, sashimi, soba noodles, and so forth. Wasabi can add a special flavor to food and help prevent disease. The Isothiocyanate (ITC) contained in wasabi is insecticidal and antibacterial, which can effectively reduce food poisoning from parasites and food-borne bacteria.
True wasabi is also called “Japanese horseradish” (or Wasabia japonica), which is from the Brassicaceae family and related to cabbage, mustard, and radish. Wasabi grows naturally in valleys because its stems need partially submerge in running water. The special condition makes it challenging to grow wasabi commercially. Therefore, wasabi is an expensive plant that can fetch up to $300 per kilogram. In Japan, the Izu Peninsula is the main region to grow wasabi, producing about 70% of Japan's wasabi.
True wasabi is made from the roots of Japanese horseradish. The traditional way to prepare wasabi is by grinding the roots of Japanese horseradish over sharkskin. Japanese people use a grater that is called sharkskin because the highest-quality graters use actual skin of sharks while cheaper versions use only the name while the surface of the grater is actually just manmade material. The grinding will make the wasabi release ITC, which is the source of the unique spicy flavor of wasabi. It is said that using this grater makes the taste a little better.
History of Wasabi
Wasabi is now an important part of Japanese food culture. Initially, wasabi was used for medicinal purposes in the Asuka period (538 to 710). It was not until the Edo period (1603 and 1867) that wasabi began to be used as a condiment.
In the early Edo period, Japanese people started to grow wasabi consciously. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the governor at that time, fell in love with wasabi because of its taste and the similarity between wasabi leaves and the family crest of the Tokugawa family.
By the late Edo period, the idea of making sushi with wasabi was popular and widespread. Due to the lack of means to store food, people used wasabi to reduce bacteria and prevent food poisoning. In the early Taisho era (1912-1926), wasabi powder was invented. Learning from the processing of tea, people dried and powdered wasabi to facilitate storage and transportation.
Fake Wasabi vs. Real Wasabi
Actually, many people who think they tried "wasabi" may only taste fake wasabi. In Japanese, hon-wasabi refers to the wasabi planted in Japan, while seiyo-wasabi is the horseradish from Europe. Hon-wasabi is far more expensive than European horseradish. Therefore, most "wasabi" is only a mixture of seiyo-wasabi, a small amount of real wasabi, corn starch, and food coloring. Generally, these fake wasabi products contain real wasabi, no more than 3%.
Wasabi usually comes in three forms: paste, powder, and wasabi root. Real wasabi is made of ground wasabi roots, without any other additions. However, chemical stabilizers are unavoidable for storage and transportation. Therefore it is important to check the list of ingredients to distinguish if the wasabi you buy is real.
There is a clear difference between real and fake wasabi in terms of texture and flavor. A sticky, smooth, paste-like wasabi is usually fake because real wasabi is gritty and firm. The freshly grated wasabi has a "clean" spiciness that is mild enough to bring out the delicate flavor of the fish. Fake wasabi will completely overpower the flavor of sushi because it is pungent and burning.
Due to the limited availability and high price of wasabi, most wasabi in supermarkets at low prices uses alternative ingredients to replicate the flavor of wasabi. Unfortunately, fake wasabi is not only limited to supermarkets. It is said that only about 5-10% of restaurants outside of Japan serve real wasabi. Therefore, if you want to try real wasabi, the best choice is to go to a high-end Japanese restaurant. In high-end restaurants, wasabi is always served fresh, as it loses its flavor within about 15 minutes after being grated.